Sunday, February 28, 2010

Page 902 from the "Well No Shit" Files

Stop the presses everyone!

Atheists have morals!

That's right. A nice new scientific study confirms what looking around and noticing that jails aren't full of evil atheists could have already told you.

It's nice confirmation to wag in the faces of the idiots that think morals can only come from God, yet the authors can't leave the article without saying something completely asinine.
"It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualising [sic] moral intuitions,” he said.

"Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence."
Using religion as a medium for transmitting morals is so fundamental to our existence that criticizing religion is a fundamental threat to morals in general?!

Yes, and I'm sure that slavery was such an important part of the economic prosperity of the United States that criticizing that would be a fundamental threat to economical stability.

Obviously the the researchers didn't get the message of their own research: Many people (atheists and agnostics) are perfectly fine without God, even without having to dress up morality in a religious medium.

Lame attempt at accomodationism is lame.

Friday, February 26, 2010

What a bunch of drama whores

The supreme court has repeatedly held that student led prayer in schools is ok. What's not kosher is prayer (or other religious activities) led or encouraged by the faculty. So you'd think an agreement between a public school and the ACLU which did little more than restating this to prevent a lawsuit wouldn't be a big deal.

But it is.


Like, World War III kinda big deal.

When a court barred the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI) from trying to overturn the agreement, the Liberty Counsel, a Christian organization fighting to allow prayer in Santa Rosa County schools, flipped shit.
The court’s ruling has elevated this case to nuclear war


I'm going to start stocking up on canned food and batteries and flashlights and twinkies and Dawkins books (so I have something to read and remind me not to pray while the world is ending and I hide in my fallout shelter) and all that good stuff.

Meanwhile, what's the Hyperbole Liberty Council doing to prep for NUCLEAR WAR?!

"[I]t will sue the school district."



I get it.

Those guys were just being stupid.

Good job on that. I mean, new twist. Usually it's just Godwin's Law, but invoking nuclear war.... that's a good one. Had me for a minute there.

That'll teach me to take these guys seriously.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Post Con Wrap Up: Naka 2010

I just woke up from 12 hours of sleep. Boy was it needed.

Naka this year was great. Not the best con I've ever attended, but as with every con, it has its own bits of magic.

I'm what we at Naka call a Director. Other cons usually call this a Head of Staff. I'm in charge of setting up the gaming room and managing the staff in there. It's simultaneously one of the easiest jobs and one of the worst.

It's easy because there's never a super ton of stuff to do all at once. Most of our equipment is donated and the donations (both the promises of and the physical equipment) trickle in. I got there Thursday and with my staff, set up the fistful of stations with equipment donated by staff. That took an hour or two. Then we were free to hang around and do not much of anything.

Friday, more donations slowly came in and we set them up as they came. Sunday, we started pulling systems down in the early afternoon and packing everything up for people to pick them up. Pretty easy.

The hard part is keeping it all organized. We had roughly $20,000 of other people's equipment sitting in that room and keeping who brought what straight and knowing exactly where it is at all times is a logistical nightmare. I have a system in place that does pretty well with this, but some things never got labeled as they came in which made trying to figure out which controller belonged to which person a fun logic game.

Overall, I'm pretty sure we only lost 1 gamecube controller and a PS2 controller. Not as good as last year (only lost 1 wiimote), but still a pretty good record.

Aside from the game room, I was also the MC for the costume competition. Due to a snoring room mate, I was horribly sleep deprived for this and was only saved thanks to the grace of Red Bull. My co-MC didn't even have that much. He was having trouble keeping the order straight, and I was having trouble with pronunciation. Made for a good joke though.

Meanwhile, the audience just never got into it this year. I have no good reason why yet. I think it was partially due to the lack of the really good cliches ("Over 9000!," Carmeldansen, Rick Rolling, You Just Lost the Game, etc...) to hit the funny buttons. Another issue was poor sound quality on the pre-recorded dialogue the skits used. I couldn't make most of it out. Some also suggested that overly directional lighting made it hard to get into.

The two panels I hosted were both huge successes. The Bento panel almost filled one of the largest panel rooms we had. I had numerous people tell me that they had intended to go, but accidentally slept too late. The Anime Mythbusters panel did fill the room and had several people standing along the back wall. The panel was recorded and will be available as part of a DVD collection from the con here. I'll be working to get a copy of it and get it hosted on YouTube as soon as possible.

Other highlights from the con came from the after-party at which one of the con-coms (what other cons often call con-chairs) got rather drunk and it was quite interesting to see one of the meekest people in our staff start dancing, move-for-move to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance".

I finally made it home around 8pm yesterday and after doing a bit of unpacking and catching up on all the internet business I missed this past weekend, I went to sleep. Twelve hours later and I'm still tired. My throat still hurts from shouting over people in the game room. And I still have to unpack.

The next con I'm looking to attend is Kawa Kon next month.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Firefox is starting to suck more than Windows

Dear Firefox,

I'm not sure what is going on, but after installing an update a few months back, you've been sucking pretty hard. There's two main issues you're having.

The first is that you've just been stupid slow sometimes. You'll frequently freeze up for 30 seconds when I load a page. Can't change tabs. Can't stop the loading. Just frozen. Generally, you comes back, but on occasion it's just gone until I Ctrl + Alt + Del the legs out from under you and start over.

The second is that you frequently just completely crash. I'm in the middle of doing something and *poof*. The window is just gone. I restart and get your, "Whoops! This is embarrassing" message and then you reloads everything I had going. At least you're cool enough to remember what was going on. But this is happening daily. WTF is going on Firefox?

I know I've got a dozen tabs open of articles I'm reading, perhaps some streaming internet radio and then Skype, Acrobat, and some other heavy RAM munching programs out there, but my computer's beefy. It can handle. You can handle.

I love the Firefox, but I've already downloaded Chrome. It's a little too minimalistic, but I swear.... I'll use it if you make me. Play nice.



Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review - Breaking the Spell

It only took a year of starts and stops, but I finally finished Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett.

For atheists, the general premise is certainly not new: Religion is a meme that has evolved over time. However, Dennett takes this further than simply stating this; He asks whether this particular meme is truly beneficial and looks at the origins of it.

The book starts with an exploration of whether or not science can actually address religion (it can) and asks whether the topic should even be broached. He compares the effects of doing so to what might happen if you spoil a magic trick; It dispells the illusion (breaks the spell) and the entire system might collapse. If religion is truly a good force in this world, then perhaps its best not to break the spell. Ultimately he concludes that, with the growing global communication, there's no way that religion won't move more into the spotlight than it has in the past, and that, if it's going to, it should do so with the fair and critical eye of science rather than with the propaganda and hysteria it currently cloaks itself in.

To build a hypothesis on religions roots, Dennett looks at other things that we crave with apparently no basis. One example was that of sugar; We used to like it because it was important to our well-being and since it was scarcely available, it wasn't a problem. But now that we've cultivated it and can mass produce it, we're damaging ourselves through overabundance. Could religion be a similar phenomenon in which it played a useful role in the past but now is simply detrimental to society and the individual?

He also asks whether or not the interplay between our society and religion is truly in our best interest or if religion may simply be a parasite meme that plays no benefit at all. This is highly doubtful and even atheists as staunch as Dawkins will point out some benefits of religion. Obviously the truth lies somewhere in between as some sort of symbiont, which Dennett recognizes.

But regardless of this, where did this proto religion come from? Dennett proposes it could arise the same way other features like language did. Or possibly it was a byproduct of other features of ours. Namely Dennett suggests that, because we as a species developed the unique ability to infer the thoughts and feelings and others, perhaps that same ability went to far and we tended to anthropomorphize things that shouldn't need them (such as the weather). Once that was in place, it would be a base for a meme that could be built upon.

The obvious next step is how would it be built upon. Dennett's answer comes from the behavior of chickens in an experiment in which they were fed at random intervals. In an attempt to get more food, chickens would remember the actions they were performing when the food came and attempt to replicate them to trigger new food dispersal. Eventually they would build up odd and complex patterns as they tried. A similar phenomenon as humans tried to please their anthropomorphized nature would be the basis for rituals. Add in a bit of language to pass it on and we're well on our way to a full fledged religion.

Another interesting feature is that religions often tend to pray and worship together in unison. This is something we should expect from a religion founded naturally as a meme. The uniformity improves the fidelity of copying.

From there, Dennett looks at how these wild religious memes were domesticated as their maintenance was taken over by ritualistic leaders in the same way music has come to be dominated by musicians. Both became more of a show, more of a spectacle. At this point, "trade secrets" would become essential and a cloak of secrecy would arise trying to discourage questioning with miraculous answers and logical incongruities.

Eventually, brand loyalty would develop as people invested so heavily in their religious sect that the thought of leaving it would become impossible. Even when the core belief would be lost, many would still adhere to the practices because, if nothing else, there is a strong belief in belief in God rather than a direct belief in God. Indeed, many religions seem to be switching away from a very direct definition of God and His characteristics to more ambiguous terms. Now that the belief in belief is established, the omnipresent sky daddy becomes deanthropomorphized, making it even more contagious. The added nebulosity makes it even harder to directly analyze adding yet another veil to the concept.

At this point, I remembered one of my main reasons I personally gave up on religion; It was contradictory and stupid when taken too literally and worthlessly vague when not. A balance between stupid and worthless was no better. The veils floated off and I found the core to be hollow.

This ends the second section of the book. Having established a logical and testable route from which religion could have developed, Dennett turns to whether religion deserves the adoration it receives. He compares it to music saying,
Suppose I love music more than life itself. Other things being equal, then, I should be free to live my life in pursuit of the exaltation of music, the thing I love most, with all my hear and soul. But that still doesn't give me the right to force my children to practice their instruments night and day, or the right to impose musical education on everybody in the country of which I am the dictator, or to threaten the lives of those who have no love of music. If my love of music is so great that I am simply unable to consider its implications objectively, then this is an unfortunate disability, and others may with good reason assert the right to act as my surrogate, conscientiously deciding what is benefit for all, since my love has driven me mad, and I cannot rationally participate in the assessment of my own behaviors and its consequences.
This, I feel, is the perfect sentiment. Those so absorbed into something that they have lost vision should not be permitted to force it on others without a damned good reason.

This begs the question (which Dennett does not answer) as to how to apply this to science; Is science in general or evolution in specific so blindly followed that its protagonists should not have any say?

Hardly. The standards of evidence, that is to say the scientific method, is an external locus agreed upon by all people, even those that seek to undermine it. If it weren't, then Creationists wouldn't be so desperate to validate their nonsense by passing it off as science. Quite the paradox for them.

Dennett concludes that people should be allowed their freedoms to do and promote as they wish provided so long as they don't
close their minds
1. through fear or hatred or
2. by disabling them from inquiry (by denying them and education for instance, or keeping them entirely isolated from the world)
Sadly, no mainstream religion would qualify given that their promotion is largely based on fear of punishment.

Thus, Dennett suggests, it is time to break the spell.

But for one final challenge, Dennett questions how this should be done. To illustrate the problem with Islamic radicals; They will only respond to discussions from other Islamic people. But if those Islamic people are perceived to be influenced by us to do so, that will only drive the radicals further away. Yet without prodding from us, the moderates won't act.

With this in mind, Dennett calls for moderates of all faiths to help to curtail the religious extremes of their respective faiths. I suspect this won't work. Moderates won't sush the extremists because they realize that if they do so, then they would be the extreme and their views would be subject to scrutiny. Thus, the future may seem bleak, but as Dennett suggested earlier, this cloudy period cannot endure. Perhaps one day, light will shine through. I look not to religious moderates to do the work themselves. Rather, I suspect the clouds will be blown away by those who dare to look at them; the atheists.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Naka-Kon: T -7 days

At this time next week I will be setting up for Naka Kon. It's a good thing I have a four day weekend because I need all the time I can get.

I'm working as the Game Room director, so I have to organize all the donations and make sure we don't have people bringing too many doubles, and that everyone actually has what they tell me they can bring, plus keep track of all the junk the con actually owns. Part of my day today was finalizing the tournament schedule and writing the rules for all 11 in a more uniform fashion.

On top of those duties, I'm giving two lectures. The first is the new version of my Science of Anime panel, which I'm calling "Anime Mythbusters" this year. It's packed with some serious new awesome. The second is a lecture on bento lunches. Most of my day today has been putting together the powerpoint for that and double checking my list of everything I need to have to do the demos associated with that.

We also have a final staff meeting this weekend. I'm not going to be able to head out to KC to actually attend, but it does mean having to listen in for 4 hours on Skype for my thirty seconds to say, "Nothing new for my sector." *headdesk*

At least I'm not trying to do any new costumes this year, although I will be hosting the cosplay competition again.

Since I'm also having to take two days off work to work this con, I also need to get extra far ahead on my lesson plans and find activities for my 6 classes that can keep them busy the two days I'm gone. Most of them will be taking tests one day, but that leaves about 8 classes for which I have to put something together and that can be handled by the principal who has no science background.

Meanwhile, Friday and Saturday nights are still raid nights with my guild in WoW. We're steadily progressing in Icecrown Citadel. We can mop up Festergut now, but Rotface is still giving us trouble. A warrior tank for the slimes just doesn't work too well. At some point I got drafted into healing, so I'm somewhat of a necessity. Me missing doesn't work for the team.

On top of everything else, Saturday and Sunday nights are my night to cook dinner currently.

Perhaps I'll sleep sometime.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

More lab ideas

My last lab idea didn't work out. Although my school had a balance, it didn't have any weights for it. Fail. So that one's on hold until we can order one.

In the meantime, I was recently reminded of a cool program by a company called Aspex. This company makes Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEM) and has a program currently called Send Us Your Samples in which anyone can send a sample in with this form, have it scanned under they're SEM and the results are posted to their online gallery.

It's not exactly science in and of itself, but SEMs are frequently used to do science. The key difference is that science involves asking questions and drawing conclusions.

So my plan is to ask my students to come up with some questions they could answer with the help of a SEM. One idea I had was asking what happen to cells if they're exposed to UV light. I'm going to pose this challenge to them today and give them a week to submit ideas to me and then I'll choose a few to send in and see what sorts of things we can learn!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Thinking about a netbook

I've been thinking about getting a portable computer recently. In considering what I need, I realized that about all I use my computer for on a regular basis is internet and Office.

With that in mind, it seems like a netbook would be a good choice.

But where to start?

Looking around Newegg, I'm familiar with some brands (Asus and I have always gotten along), but I seem to remember reading somewhere awhile back that the companies that have typically dominated the desktop/laptop market have been slow to embrace netbooks and many of the smaller companies have specialized in netbooks and have better products.

Another question is how much RAM is enough? I see many of these netbooks starting at 1 GB, but the reviews frequently suggest upgrading to 2 GB. Given most of them have Win 7 as their OS, and Windows is known for having a large memory footprint, what's left if I only get 1 GB?

Any thoughts? I'd like to get one here in very short order! (Preferably before Naka on the 18th!)

Friday, February 05, 2010

Science at the doctor

I'm not fond of going to the doctor. In fact I hate it. I generally don't go unless I've got a pretty serious problem.

Recently, I've been having some pretty serious problems with my large to on my right foot; It keeps getting ingrown.

Last September, I visited a podiatrist and had the nail dug out. Now, 4 months later, it's grown out and went right back to being ingrown. So I headed back.

But this time, I had a better idea what to be expecting, and teaching a biology and chemistry course, there were several things that caught my interest more than they had last time.

The first one was a cool little spray the doctor used on my toe before shooting me full of Novocaine. This time, I asked him what exactly it was. He told me it was a "topical refrigerant" called Ethyl Chrloride. It's similar to spilling a bit of rubbing alcohol on your skin in that it feels cold due to heat from your body transferring into it and being carried off by evaporation. But Ethyl Chloride does this even more. It's like having supercooled water poured on you.

For my Chemistry class, I was told that the students were having some trouble understanding heat and temperature so I've been looking for some cool demonstrations for this to highlight the concept when we get back there (when we hit endothermic and exothermic reactions). I'd love to get some of this to talk about the transfer of thermal energy. Unfortunately, it's apparently used as a recreational drug, which is probably going to make it somewhat hard to get a hold of. Blast.

Another interesting side topic from my trip to the doctor had to do with Biology. In my Bio II class, we've been talking about prokaryotes and just finished a section on bacterial infections. Part of that included the methods by which they do damage. The book listed two: Actually destroying cells by using them as food, and releasing toxins that disrupt the homeostasis of other cells.

I had a minor infection going along with my nail and I'd noticed one of the effects was that the skin was peeling off in layers. I asked my podiatrist what was causing this and he pointed out that it was due, not to either of the effects our textbook listed, but to swelling caused by the bacteria stretching the skin past its elastic limit. This was a great bit of personal experience to bring into the classroom. A bunch of high school boys like nothing better than a good gross-out story. If only I had pictures....

I've also been somewhat interested in how my movement following my visit has been playing out. Obviously, I can't put much weight on my toe, so I've been having to walk more on the outside of the foot. It seems like a small shift, but it takes an entirely different type of movement. I was on my feet for 5 hours teaching after visiting the doctor yesterday, and then a few more for my weekly SCA night. Very quickly muscles were protesting. I haven't had time to look at it too carefully, but I suspect having to change my walk even this slightly is exercising slightly different muscle groups that almost never get use. They're protesting this morning.

While I still hate having to go to the doctor, occasionally, there's some cool stuff to learn there.

Science is everywhere.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Big Bang - Laughs

I still laughed.